Executive Decision

Posted May 22, 2007 at 4:33pm

Bob Hixon, Doug Jacobs and Bernard Ungar may not be household names, even among Members of Congress and staff, but the three men to most recently hold the title of Capitol Visitor Center project executive have had much to say about life on Capitol Hill. Each, in turn, was handed responsibility for day-to-day development of the CVC, overseeing all the noise, dust and inconvenience that come with any construction project — let alone one that will result in a 580,000-square-foot subterranean visitor center/expansion workspace.

Under Hixon and his superiors — first then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman and now acting AOC Stephen Ayers — the CVC experienced countless delays, many their responsibility but several also the result of Congress frequently tinkering with its backyard project. Jacobs barely lasted a few weeks in the job. So today, Ungar officially becomes the project executive and the third person to hold the job in three months. Given his prior experience overseeing the CVC for the Government Accountability Office, we believe him to be the right person to see the project through to completion.

Roll Call has long been an advocate of the CVC, both for its importance to the nation as an educational center as well as a much-needed expansion of space and security measures. But one thing we cannot abide is the near-constant escalation in costs and delays. For two years — first as a full-time GAO employee and more recently as a contractor — Ungar had a front-row seat to the problems that have plagued construction. And he hasn’t been shy in sharing his criticisms with Members of Congress. At an oversight hearing last year, for example, he blamed “a lack of management focus” for the repeated delays and said the AOC’s office did not place enough importance on reaching milestones.

GAO skepticism, countering optimistic reports from the AOC, has been a running theme in the unfolding story of the CVC, and given the near-regularity of new delays, it is an easy decision to put our faith in Ungar.

We can only hope that he justifies that faith. And we agree with Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, who said on Tuesday that Ungar’s first priority must be to hold the contractors accountable for repeatedly missing deadlines. Without an infusion of true leadership, nothing will improve.

We are further pleased with the selection of Ungar because it ensures that institutional knowledge is not lost at a critical juncture. According to a recent study, one of the GAO’s primary concerns with the AOC in general has been the high rate of turnover among top managers. In the past year alone, nine top posts have been filled with new people at the agency. Such turnover can only have detrimental effects on a project that has proved to be as delicate as the CVC. Meanwhile, Hantman left the AOC earlier this year, and Ayers has said he is not interested in the post, so potentially three Architects could very well have overseen the CVC by the time it opens. At the very least Ungar is a familiar face who can hit the ground running.

Readers of Roll Call are well-versed in the CVC’s history of delays and rising costs — once slated to be ready for the 2005 presidential inauguration at a cost of $265 million, we are now looking at a September 2008 opening with the tab reaching $600 million — but nothing can be done to change history. We can only hope Ungar will change the future: no more delays, or else Congress may have to adjust its plans for another inauguration.